For ages, people have wrangled urban existences from unlikely foundations, constructing architectural masterpieces in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Today, the issues facing urban sprawl are more complex than simply harnessing Mother Nature. Experts predict that 70% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas by 20501. Cities will feel the strain, magnified by stressors, such as infrastructure, that are ill-equipped to handle a growing population and worsening pollution. The good news is that today’s cities are combatting challenges with unexpected solutions that seem years ahead of the curve. Below are a few of the most innovative concepts happening around the globe.
A Chinese Forest City that will "eat" smog
In China’s Forest City, plants will outnumber humans by a margin
of 3,000 to 1. Image by Stefano Boeri Architetti.
Pollution is a pressing challenge for major Chinese hubs like Beijing and Shanghai. Recognizing the issue, China is leading the charge when it comes to state-of-the-art, sustainable solutions for improving air quality. One example is the Forest City, which aims to host a unique combination of inhabitants—up to 30,000 people and about a million plants2.
It’s predicted that Forest City will absorb 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 57 tons of pollutants, and produce 900 tons of oxygen each year3. The experiment is expected to result in better air quality, natural noise barriers, and impressive levels of biodiversity that will literally “eat” smog.
Forest City’s self-sufficient community will be powered by geothermal and solar energy sources, and will feature a rail line for electric vehicles. Construction of the city, which will consist of more than 340 acres and house shopping malls, hospitals, homes, hotels, schools, and offices—all covered top to bottom in plant life—will begin soon.
Stefano Boeri, the architect spearheading the project, hopes that the community will serve as a model for future green endeavors, not just because of its features, but also because of its holistic approach to urban planning. The project is built around three pillars: technology, biodiversity, and community engagement—all of which will be central to successful green projects in the future, Boeri explained.
"Collectively, we have been able to increase the number of technical devices that produce renewable energy. But we now understand that this is not enough," he said. "If we only focus on the technology to fight climate change we will only solve part of the problem. It has to be combined with a diverse urban forestry and, more importantly, a commitment from the local community if we want to create something enduring."
Data Centers That Heat Stockholm
Stockholm’s data center program is a unique alignment of
corporate incentives and sustainability.
Data centers, despite their reputation for efficiency, are in reality energy-intensive. Globally, data centers represent as much as 3% of total electricity consumed,4 much of which is needed to run fans to cool servers as they generate a tremendous amount of heat.
That heat has to go somewhere, and Sweden wants to send it to individual homes. Working with a local heating company and power grid operator, the city of Stockholm announced the Stockholm Data Parks project in 2017, an initiative that helps data centers recycle their excess energy to heat the homes of city residents. The project, which expects to generate enough heat to warm 2,500 homes by the end of 2018, is part of Stockholm’s goal to be completely fossil-fuel free by 2040.5
Sweden is heavily focused on sustainable efforts like this one because it lacks natural energy reserves, and gets just 6.3% percent of its electricity from fossil fuels.6 Also, the Stockholm Data Parks project has attracted investor interest because companies that join the program can sell their own heat, and receive free cooling services. The project offers a great illustration of how a city can align corporate incentives with a unique sustainability initiative.
The Building That’s A Game Changer for Rotterdam
The Dutch Windwheel will double as both a major architectural
achievement, and a triumph of sustainability. Image by Doepel
Renderings of the Dutch Windwheel—currently being touted as "the sustainable icon and future landmark in Europe's largest port city"— feel like something straight out of science fiction.
In reality, the Windwheel will be part utility and part attraction. It will include apartments, offices, and a hotel, as well as shops and a futuristic ferris-wheel-type ride. The building will stand more than 570 feet tall and will feature a double loop of glass and steel, lending a sleek look to the structure.
Architect Duzan Doepel said that, with the Dutch Windwheel, he aims to create a structure in Rotterdam that rivals the touristic appeal of the London Eye, which draws millions of people each year. "I see this as the kind of project where tourism and real estate can combine in a way that illustrates how innovation can solve some of the social and environmental challenges that we face," he said.
The Windwheel is more than just visually stunning; it will also be an icon for sustainability and cutting-edge technology. Each of the 40 cabins will be equipped with “smart walls” —glass panels infused with touch-screens that display data about the scenery viewable from the ride—as well as holographic tour guides and 3D interactive experiences that will enlighten visitors about Dutch sustainability programs. The building is intended to be carbon neutral and is scheduled to begin construction in 2025.
"If we're going to embrace the next economy, which is built on the pillars of sustainable energy and innovation, then we need to develop an architecture that responds to our new environmental and resource challenges," Doepel said. "Technology is a wonderful tool that we must leverage intelligently as we design our structures for tomorrow’s world."
As our world progresses into new eras of history complete with their own set of challenges, cities will need to continue to be blueprints for adaptiveness—and smart cities in particular will need to be trailblazers for ideas that push the boundaries of what we thought was possible.
1. UN World Urbanization Prospects, 2014 Revision
2. Stefano Boeri Architetti, Studio Urban Planning and Architecture
3. Stefano Boeri Architetti, Studio Urban Planning and Architecture
4. The Independent, 2016
5. BBC, 2017
6. CIA, World Factbook, Sweden